Fire Dancing – An Out-of-Body Experience
I should have known that my plans were in the hands of fate, when I got
food poisoning two days before my departure from Athens to attend a much
anticipated performance of fire dancing at the annual May 21st Feast of
Saints Constantine and Eleni in northern Greece. I was determined to go.
The pharmacist assured me that the box of capsules he prescribed would do
the trick. Just to make sure, I bought a second box to take during the
overnight train ride to Thessaloniki.
Upon arrival in Thessaloniki, I went straight to the bus depot. The
fire dancing takes place in the town of Langadas, a forty-kilometer
journey. As I sat in a nearby park while I waited for the bus, a strange
sensation came over me. I felt disoriented, dizzy and light-headed,
strangely out-of-touch with reality. My senses seemed numb as if my mind
and spirit had completely left my body. I began to panic. I felt as
though I were dying. I imagined the horrified reaction of my family in
Canada when they learned that my body was found on a park bench in a
foreign country. Alone and anonymous, I scribbled down information
about myself on a scrap of paper and put it in my pocket just in case.
Three police officers appeared. I considered appealing to them for help.
Instead, I took a deep breath, sipped some water, and told myself it was
all in my imagination. It would be better to die in a hotel bed
than on a park bench. So I got on the bus headed for Langadas.
Langadas is a quiet farming community with tidy houses, rose arbors and
vegetable gardens. I had no trouble finding my hotel, the Lido. It’s the
only one in town. I bought a souvlaki to eat and went up to my room to
sleep off the light-headed and disoriented feeling I had. But even after
I woke, the euphoric out-of-body sensations persisted.
I went for a walk, breathing in the fresh pungent air of the countryside.
I still felt strange, disconnected from reality, and I considered going to
the local hospital. First I’d go back to the hotel, shower and change my
travel-soiled clothes. I wanted to die looking presentable.
While combing my hair, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed how
my eyes were glazed, the pupils small as pinpoints. Then I realized that
the strange euphoria I had felt all morning must have been caused by
drugs. The diarrhea medicine!
A local pharmacist confirmed it. “You shouldn’t have taken more than the
one box dosage,” he scolded. I had overdosed on opiates. I wasn’t going
to die. I was just stoned. The instruction on the package had been all
Greek to me!
That trauma taken care of, I set off to find the Anastenarides, the
famous mystics who dance barefooted on hot coals and somehow miraculously
never get burned.
In Greece, the Orthodox Church considers fire dancing to be a pagan
ritual, even though the initiates claim that their unswerving faith in
God protects them from the fire. The fire dancing is performed every year
on the Feast of Saints Constantine and Eleni in the Greek Macedonian
towns of Seres and Langadas. Although the church has ceased to heap fire
and brimstone on the fire dancers, the ceremony is still secretive.
I roamed around the town asking several locals where I could see the
fire dancing. My question was greeted with a stern look and stony
silence. Why such mystery? I wondered. Near the outskirts of town, I
located the small Church of the Saints, but there was only a wizened
crone dressed in black solemnly tending the graves. No sign of fire dancers.
A small midway had been set up on the roadside near the church
with carnival rides, game booths and fast-food cars. Behind the midway
the field was cordoned off with a picket fence and rows of wooden chairs
had been set up. A group of gypsy women dressed in bright flowered skirts
and colorful kerchiefs surrounded me. They smiled at me, their gold teeth
“Pou einai oi Anastenarides?” I asked. “Where are the fire dancers?”
Once again my question was greeted with the typical lift of the
shoulders, chin and eyebrows, which translates “I don’t know.”
Back at the Hotel Lido, I struck up a conversation with Marc, a Belgian
photojournalist. He had also spent a fruitless day searching for the fire
dancers. He had learned, however, that the fenced-off part of the midway was where
the fire dance would be performed.
“It’s held outside of town because of the church’s edict,” he explained.
“The presence of the carnival and gypsies gives the fire dancing more of
a circus atmosphere, which is acceptable to the town folk.”
Marc’s detective work proved more fruitful than mine did. The next
morning he located the konaki, the house of the Anastenarides where a
calf had been sacrificed as part of the mystic rites.
“The house is not far from the church,” he said. “The ritual dancing
begins this afternoon followed by the fire dancing.”
I set off toward the pastures at the edge of town. I could hear the
distant throbbing of drums, and followed the sound to a low-roofed house
with a long porch on which many people had gathered.
I approached the house cautiously, not sure if I would be permitted to
enter but I was welcomed into a large room where benches had been
arranged around the walls for spectators. The sharp aroma of incense and
bees wax permeated the air. At one end of the room was a table heaped
with religious relics, ornate silver icons and varnished paintings of the
Saints. As visitors entered, they lit slender bee’s wax candles and
genuflected before the icons. In front of the altar table, the
barefooted Anastenarides, both men and women, whirled and swayed as they
danced to the throbbing of a big single-sided drum, a wailing clarinet
and the whining strings of a lyra. They circled the room in front of the
table of religious relics. As they danced they clutched icons and waved
red handkerchiefs decorated with silver and gold talismans to ward off
evil and made strange groaning sounds, which give them their name.
Anastenarides is derived from the Greek word anastenagmos, meaning “to groan.”
The mood in the room was one of reverence. As the haunting cadence of
the music filled the room, a gray-haired elder carried around a clay
smudge pot and drenched the participants and spectators with fragrant
sage-scented smoke. I thought of the similarity to our North American
The monotonous booming of the drum had a hypnotic effect. After several
hours, in a state of fire dance just as hundreds of years before, their
forefathers performed their perilous walk through fire.
These mysterious rituals began during the invasion of the Tartars who
swept through the Byzantine Empire burning and pillaging. In a Macedonian
town, a church named for Saint Constantine had been set ablaze. The
parishioners who went through the flames to rescue the priceless icons
were miraculously not burned. To the Anastenarides, the fire dance
represents the triumph of good over evil. They believe it is their
absolute faith in God and their ability to achieve a state of
self-hypnosis, that allows them to dance on hot coals and remain
unburned. It is truly an out-of-body experience.
Several hours passed. The music and drumbeats grew more intense. I felt
mesmerized by the wailing minor chords of the music. Outside the konaki a
large crowd had gathered. Suddenly there was a commotion. A contingent of
local police had arrived. Were we to be arrested for participating in a
pagan ritual? No, the police had come to escort the fire dancers to the
A long processional formed. The spectators followed the Anastenarides
down the country lane, accompanied by the musicians. Suddenly, as we
trooped through the pastures toward the carnival site, ominous black
clouds obscured the sky. A violent eruption of thunder boomed and
dangerous spikes of forked lightening crackled earthward. A deluge of
rain poured from the black heavens. Within minutes, the road was churned
to mud and flooded with rivulets of water. As the drenching rain poured
relentlessly down, the Anastenarides clutching their precious icons, ran
for cover back to the konaki. I found shelter under the eaves of a
farmhouse with Marc, the photojournalist.
“No fire dancing tonight,” Marc laughed. The two of us were soaked to
“Tin oh kahnomay,” I replied with a typical Greek shrug. “What are we to
do?” It was the hand of fate. I knew it!
There was still one more day left of the religious celebration. The next
morning dawned bright and sunny. No sign of storm clouds. Once again I
went to the house of the fire dancers and spent the afternoon watching
the initiates dance. Just as it had the day before, a crowd gathered, the
dancers performed their rituals, the musician played, and in the evening
a processional formed to parade down the country lane. Then, at exactly
the same moment, as the Anastenarides left their konaki, it began to
storm. Once again it seemed that the fire dancer’s mystic communion with
the Saints had been squelched by an unseen power.
“Somebody up there definitely doesn’t want this to happen,” I remarked
to a bemused black-robed priest who watched from under the shelter of his
umbrella as the rain-soaked Anastenarides scrambled back into their house.
He shrugged, lifting his chin and eyes heavenward. “Ti krema!” he said.
“What a pity!” There was a smug smile on his face.
Disappointed, I left the konaki and made my way through the downpour
back to my hotel. I had to leave Langadas the next morning. I’d have to
wait for another time to see the fire dancers perform. The only
out-of-body experience that year was the one I’d had on the park bench in